The Shell Seekers (1987)

by Rosamunde Pilcher

Artist Lawrence Stern gave daughter Penelope his painting The Shell Seekers as a wedding gift. More than four decades later, as the sales price of Stern's work increases, The Shell Seekers is a source of tension between Penelope and two of her three children, Nancy and Noel. They want her to sell the treasured heirloom to reap cash for their own plans. Only middle-child Olivia thinks their mother has the right to do whatever she pleases with the painting.

The narrative shifts back and forth from the 1980s in Penelope's cottage in the Cotswolds to her childhood in London and young adulthood in Cornwall, with a detour about Olivia's year in Italy with a lover named Cosmo. Penelope grew up happily as the only child of bohemian parents, Stern and his much-younger French wife, and came of age during World War II, which proved to be her most pivotal years. She enlisted in the Women's Royal Naval Service impulsively, married the wrong man, met the right one, suffered deprivations, and lost loved ones. Back in the present, as her grown children are too busy for her, Penelope grows close to Cosmo’s 18-year-old daughter, who is living with her temporarily, and the young gardener taking care of Penelopes yard after her heart attack.

The Shell Seekers, a well-paced family saga told by a good storyteller, is on a lot of people's all-time-favorites list. Pilcher has greet powers of description, particularly in rendering both village and urban environments in England and re-creating the war years. There are many likable characters — first and foremost the kind and amiable Penelope.

The characterization of everyone is narrow, however; they are all one-dimensional and static, either wonderful or disagreeable from start to finish. Nancy and Noel, the primary disagreeable ones, deserve to be more fleshed out so that readers can better judge them. Penelope's obvious favoritism toward Olivia — coming from a woman so reasonable — is out of character, making Noel’s and Nancy’s resentment nearly understandable.

The Shell Seekers might be used to exemplify the difference between literary and popular fiction. It's a good yarn, but for depth, insight, and character development, there are better books.

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